Breastfeeding in Emergencies: Why Breastmilk Substitutes Are Not Best

Breastfeeding in Emergencies: Why Breastmilk Substitutes Are Not Best

According to the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC), in emergency situations the breast is best, especially because breastmilk substitutes carry special concerns. Here are several reasons why:

  • In populations with lactase-deficiency (most developing country settings), a sudden increase in milk can cause diarrhea.
  • Powdered milk and prepared milks can serve as breeding grounds for bacteria. In emergency situations—when proper storage is not optimal—contamination can easily spread.
  • When there is no guarantee of clean water for mixing and cleaning, formula preparation and feeding cannot be carried out safely.
  • If breastmilk substitutes are used, the child’s immune system is weakened, and the family becomes dependent on formula and powders, with all their costs and risks.

The USBC has addressed numerous myths surrounding breastfeeding in emergencies, such as:

“Stress makes milk dry up.”

While extreme stress or fear may cause milk to stop flowing, this response is usually temporary. The best way to address a stress-related lack of milk, is to create safe places for lactating women where they can be sure to receive water, rations, and help re-lactating. When milk flow returns, breastfeeding will produce hormones that calm the mother and the baby and foster a loving bond.

“Malnourished mothers cannot breastfeed.”

Lactating mothers need to be properly nourished so that they can feed their babies and maintain the strength to care for older children in the family. Breastfeeding supplementers can be used in the event of severe malnutrition to help the mother and baby overcome malnutrition, while ensuring increased breastmilk production.

“Babies with diarrhea need water or tea.”

As breastmilk is about 90 pecent water, exclusively breastfeeding babies with diarrhea do not usually need additional liquids, such as glucose water or tea. Clean water is often not available in emergency situations. In the case of severe diarrhea, rehydration by cup may be required in addition to the breastmilk.

“Once breastfeeding has stopped, it cannot be resumed.”

With an adequate re-lactation support, it is possible to help mothers and their babies again take up breastfeeding after they have switched to infant formula. This support is very important in an emergency situation.

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